Friday, March 25, 2011

Rob Bell. . . Before. . .


Ever since I first heard his name, Rob Bell has been creating a stir. I think I was at a National Youth Workers Convention in Sacramento when Bell debuted his Nooma Film series at an old theater just down the street from the convention center where all the youth workers had gathered. I didn't go. I realized later that I should have. Everybody who was there was talking about what they had just seen. When I finally laid eyes on his Nooma stuff, I was very, very impressed.

A few years later, Bell was invited to speak on the main stage at the same Convention. In the first couple of cities, Bell got attendees all excited with his "new" approach to the Scriptures and preaching. I say "new" in quotes because, sadly, it was a new approach to many of the people at the convention. As I interviewed folks about what attracted them to Bell, they kept citing what was simply the good exegetical method that I had seen and heard used a the norm in the preaching of my childhood (primarily my Dad), that I had been seen modeled during my years at Geneva College and with the Coalition for Christian Outreach, and that I had been taught while a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Hopefully, I've remained faithful to using those tools in the years since. By the time we got to the third city on the Convention tour, I made sure I sat in to listen to Bell. Rather than being a positive commentary on Rob Bell, the excitement over a guy doing things the way they should be done was more a commentary on the lousy way that Bible study and preaching had been done and modeled for so long for the youth workers in that room. Rob Bell was modeling something that needed to be modeled.

Now, Bell is stirring the pot of controversy with his new book, "Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived." I've been catching bits and pieces of the debate, but haven't really done any deep or time-consuming investigation of Bell's new book. I've been silent for the simple reason that I haven't read the book. I wouldn't want people responding to something I've written without them carefully reading what they're responding to. I've heard the accusations of universalism, and hope that Bell isn't going down that road. People I highly respect and have come to love are coming down on both sides of the spectrum of response to the book.

So. . . yesterday my copy of Love Wins arrived. I'm hoping to start reading it soon. When I do, I hope to blog on "Rob Bell. . . During" - that is, if I have anything that might be remotely worthwhile to add to the discussion. In the same way, I hope to include some thoughts at some point on "Rob Bell. . . After." But for now, here are a couple of thoughts on "Rob Bell. . . Before. . . " . . . before reading the book, that is.

First, I'm looking forward to reading this book. A couple of friends have said that Bell includes some refreshing calls to regain a Biblical understanding of the redemptive drama, of the scope of the new Heaven and the new Earth, of a clear understanding or our call to integrate our faith into all of life, and to rethink what has become a very narrow theology and understanding of conversion.

Second, I'm concerned. If Rob Bell is inviting the sheep into believing a universalistic soteriology that some are saying he says is true, then I've been misreading the Scriptures, mislead by my teachers, and misleading folks for my entire life. Rebooting doesn't excite me. Rebooting because Rob Bell says I should scares me.

And third, if Bell is promoting heresy, then I'm fearful. I'm fearful for all the folks who have found in Rob Bell a leader they can follow. Let's be honest. . . Rob Bell is a very creative, very compelling, and very sexy young leader. Whether what he says is true or false, he's got a loyal following. Which makes it all the more necessary for all of us to read carefully and evaluate what Bell is saying under the light of God's Word. It also makes it all the more necessary for Bell to be very, very careful about what he says. People - lots of impressionable people - are listening.

Has anyone else read this book yet?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

like.....JJ

-mf said...

I'm just starting the book as well, and am eager to see if people are over reacting, reading too much into what he is saying, or if they are simply right about what he is saying in the book.

Cara Maat said...

Thanks for this. I look forward to reading what is ahead.

John Mulholland said...

Just downloaded my copy to my iPad this morning. Anxious to dig in.

John Mulholland said...

Downloaded my copy today. Looking forward to digging in.

Mandy said...

I have not read the book yet but plan to. I appreciate your perspective on the "before" part of the book reading process. In a nutshell, I think you're hinting that we need to always test everything with Scripture. Although I do not know what to expect, two things are certain: #1-The debate around this book was a brilliant marketing strategy and #2-Rob Bell can pick the perfect glasses for every occasion.

square peg believer said...

I haven't read his book, either, but have seen a promotional video clip on it. It kind of surprised me, but I've heard some of this talk before (very recently and in my OWN church). In my opinion, this universality movement seems to stem in part from the church's interest in being tolerant (a virtue in the eyes of today's culture). We don't want to appear exclusive and saying that only those who believe in Christ will be saved may come across as too narrow for those within and outside the church. But I don't see how this jives with verses I know from I John ("He who has the Son has the life") and much more, of course. Thank you for reading his book and letting us know what he's trying to communicate.

square peg believer said...

Thank you, Walt! I was concerned when I saw one of Rob's promotional videos about the book. He seemed to be preaching universality. I'm eager to know if he's off track or simply reframing the gospel, as a way to reach more people for Christ. I look forward to hearing what you have to say, after you read it.

Sara said...

I haven't read the book but I REALLY want to when I have more time and my son is doing better. I didn't know you went to Gordon-Conwell. I am a graduate of Asbury, and I found your youth resources while studying Christian Education there (for which I am VERY thankful for as a former youth minister). Anyway, Dr. Timothy Tennent, who was a Prof. at Gordon-Conwell, is now President of Asbury. He has written a FANTASTIC four-part review on his blog. You can read it here: http://timothytennent.com/2011/03/love-wins-part-one-why-rob-bell-needs-to-return-to-seminary%e2%80%a6-and-bring-along-quite-a-few-contemporary-evangelical-pastors/

Will said...

I'm halfway through. The thing I love about this book is that it really provokes you to think. Bell raises many very good questions and challenges some of the things I heard growing up. It has forced me to step back and look at some of my own beliefs and wonder, "Do I believe this because it's what the Bible says, or what someone else told me along the way?" One other thought: I don't know that Rob is doing anything all that new here, I think he's right in the same line as C.S. Lewis and even Timothy Keller's work on the subject...anyway, I must read on!

bnewton49 said...

I have previously been a big fan of Bell-first saw him, think it was in 2002, at those conventions (I saw him in Nashville). Blew me away when we spoke out of Leviticus. In the years since, he has had a huge impact on faith/understanding of Scripture. Have followed the hoopla surrounding the book but held out judgment til I could read it for myself. I finished it Saturday-and it breaks my heart. For a great summary of the books, it's potential, and it's HUGE problems, read this blog-it sums it up expertly: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/

-mf said...

@Will

I'm also about half way through now, and it is definitely challenging me. I'll read something and think, but what about _____ ? whatever that blank happens to be....I still have some questions, but I'm just getting to parts where he's starting to answer them.

I do enjoy that I am being challenged in my thoughts and frankly, some of the stuff he is saying is brilliant. I'm still holding out judgement to see if all my questions get answered, so as of now, I'm kind of indifferent, in the middle still, waiting to see the full story he has to tell.

J.Meyer said...

I, as well, won't form my opinion on Rob Bell until after reading the book. This interview on MSNBC, however, raises red flags. You can watch the interview @

http://theresurgence.com/2011/03/15/a-chronology-of-rob-bell-on-hell/#video

Gina said...

I was there at that Nooma screening in the old theater in Sacramento. I heard him speak at YS and at a National Pastor's convention. I've been a Rob Bell fan since my first Nooma! I've read Love Wins, my husband is almost done with the audiobook of it. Regardless of whether I agree with his scripture interpretations or not...I've had wonderful conversations with my husband about it. Sadly, I feel like I can't discuss the book at all in public. We live in a world where we are one sentence, one tweet, one blog post away from getting fired.

Dave Brower said...

I think the book and controversy surrounding the book is less about heaven/hell and more about salvation. Bell is taking to task what is meant by "believing in Jesus" and in the process what the outcomes are for those who "don't believe in Jesus."

A lot of the harsh reviews are coming from the Reformed and neo-calvinist movements and that should be expected. Bell's perspective has been historically against these movements (Tillich v. Barth). While Rob stops short of encamping himself with one particular tradition (which I find refreshing) he definitely has tinges of Tillich and Schleiermacher in his approach to scripture.

From what I gather from the book Bell suggests that "believing in Jesus" is more about how you live and less about what you say you believe. He moves faith beyond mere cognitive assent and makes faith about one's ability to live a certain way (even though we can't foresee the outcome/benefit). He's also seeking to un-box God from Christianity, which is a bold move for a Christian pastor. He affirms a God that is bigger than Christianity and bigger than theology.

It's a refreshing (re)-rethinking of what we view as "classic" doctrines and one that speaks loudly to our current cultural context.